Chennai

Age no deterrent to social service

While Indians across the world celebrated the country’s 70th Independence Day hoisting the tricolour and dressing up like their favourite leaders, children of Blooming Lotus Pre-School, Anna Nagar, took the road less travelled. They decided to celebrate Independence Day by visiting one of the houses in the neighbourhood.

A group of children turned up at this house with a cake, chocolates and confetti. And the resident, Meenakshi Venkatapathi, was happy to be their host. Besides all the good things to eat, the children were treated to snippets from the past; more precisely, they were offered a glimpse of India before and during the freedom struggle.

Now, you must be wondering who this Meenakshi is.

Meenakshi Venkatapathi is 100 years old, a widow of a freedom fighter and a staunch Gandhian. In 1939, following her marriage to G. Venkatachalapathy, she became familiar with Gandhian ideals. Here's a little flashback of how Meenakshi made a difference in the lives of several underprivileged children and women.

A freedom fighter and follower of Gandhi, Venkatachalapathy instituted Gandhi Niketan Ashram in Madurai in 1940, with the aim of carrying forward Gandhi’s ideals, engaging in the reconstruction of villages in and around T. Kalupatti in Madurai. He also promoted village industries, particularly khadi.

A few years down the line, Gandhi Niketan Ashram became a school with a section of it focused on empowering women by imparting skills to them that would enable them to set up their own enterprises. When her husband was incarcerated by the British government, Meenakshi took over the reins of the school, and since then, she has been running it. From 1995 to 2006, she was the chairperson of the school.

Under Meenakshi’s leadership, the number of students at the school grew from two to 2,004, which is the total strength of the school today.

“Those days, it was just an ashram to spread Gandhian thought and it later expanded as a school where unprivileged and rural children could get free, value-based education up to the higher-secondary level,” says khadi-clad Meenakshi, who has been a resident of Anna Nagar since 1978. Meenakshi’s son-in-law, Dr. R Venkataswamy, who is the chairman of Gandhi Niketan Ashram and a plastic surgeon by profession, gives a glimpse of her life as a social worker. “She has always led a simple life and has worn only khadi clothes since she joined Gandhiji in the freedom struggle,” he says. “She made women self-sufficient and independent by training them in tailoring, basket weaving and soap making. She embarked on several awareness programmes and conducted medical camps. She also went on to become the women’s welfare advisor in early 50s.”

Meenakshi often accompanied her husband in numerous Gandhian work and movement and has even hosted the likes of J.C. Kumarappa, C. Rajagopalachari and even Martin Luther King Sr when he visited Madras.

“When Martin Luther King Sr was in Tamil Nadu, the government suggested he pay a visit to Venkatachalapathy to understand the rural construction happening in the state. That’s how Meenakshi got the opportunity to meet these leaders,” says Venkataswamy. Gandhi Niketan Ashram, which is in its diamond jubilee year and is the site where a part of Gandhi’s ashes has been inurned , continues to uphold the values promoted by its founders. “It functions like any other school,” says Venkataswamy. “It has all the facilities one would expect from a city-based school, including a library, toilets and safe drinking water.”

The village industry wing of the ashram also continues to make khadi products and practise organic agriculture and vermin composting.


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Printable version | Jun 23, 2021 12:46:28 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/Age-no-deterrent-to-social-service/article14436062.ece

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